We have all heard the term “macros” and have wondered what all the hype is about. This term is typically thrown around quite a bit now, but do many people really understand what they are and how they should be implemented? Probably not! Rest assured, I am going to outline a basic guide and anunderstanding as to why so many are starting to calculate macros rather than calories.
I started counting macros many years ago to get a basic idea of how many calories I was consuming daily and to ensure I was getting adequate amounts of protein for my physique goals. I had taken a basic nutrition course which taught me the fundamentals of understating macronutrients and the roles they play in our bodies. As I started to get more comfortable tracking my meals, I started to really learn how my body responded to different ratios. It can be super overwhelming and mind blowing in the beginning, but over time, you can start to see food as nutrients and fuel. I have now gotten to the point that I am able to guestimate remarkably close to my measurements, which isdue to lots of practice.
What are Macros?
Macros, short for macronutrients, are divided into three main categories that provide you with the most energy: protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Proteins are large, complex, and essential molecules that arefound throughout our bodies. They are in our hair, skin, bones, organs, and tissues. In our bodies, there are over 10,000 different kinds of proteins that make us the humans we are. They do most of the work within a cell to help the cell regulate, function, and form part of structures in our body’s tissues and organs. Each protein molecule is made up of 20 different types of amino acids which determine each protein’s unique 3-D dimensional shape, structure, and function. Different functions include: transportation of atoms and small molecules throughout the body, antibody protection, chemical reactions, DNA formation and reading, hormonal communication, and cell structural support. Once proteins reach your stomach, hydrochloric acidand enzyme proteases break the structures into smaller chains of amino acids. Some protein packed food sources are lean meats, fish and seafood, nuts, legumes, tofu, tempeh, dairy, eggs, whole grains, and some vegetables. Protein – 1 gram = 4 calories.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. They contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen at their chemical level. They have many different functions such as providing energy and fuel to our body’s central nervous system and muscular system. They ensure that our body is not using protein as our main source of energy, and they also enable fat metabolism. Carbohydrate absorption begins in the mouth. Have you ever noticed that when you see or smell something delicious, your mouth starts to water? That is your salivary glands producing amylase, an enzyme that helps in the process of breaking down starch while you are chewing. Once the carbohydrates reach the small intestine, the pancreas produces the enzyme, pancreatic amylase, to finish breaking down the molecules. Once they break down into tiny monosaccharides, they will be absorbed into the bloodstream and stored within the liver and muscles as glycogen to be utilized as fuel and energy or stored as fat within adipose tissues. There are two different types of carbohydrates: complex and simple, which are determined by their structure.
Simple sugars primarily come from fruits, vegetables, processed foods, table sugar, and milk, and they only contain one to two sugar units. They are referred to as ‘simple’ due to their water solubility and quick digestion which makes them a great fast source of energy prior to exercise or high intensity training. The most common form of simple sugars is glucose, which is stored by the help of insulin within the body. Those who are diabetic or insulin resistant typically require medication to help metabolize excess glucose within their bodies.
Complex carbohydrates require more time to be digested, absorbed, and converted as energy and fuel. Their structure differs from simple sugars as they have more complex and longer strands in their structural makeup. Complex carbohydrates include glycogen, starch, and cellulose. Examples of carbohydrate packed foods are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, rice, corn, beans, and processed and refined foods. Carbohydrates – 1 gram = 4 calories.
Fats and Lipids
Fats and lipids are essential energy sources that have many health benefits such as aiding in fat soluble absorption, hormonal support, lowering inflammation, improving brain health and function, and some help by lowering cholesterol. Once fatty acids and lipids enter the small intestines, they are broken down and absorbed by bile that is produced by the liver. Then they enter the lymphatic system and blood stream to be stored and used as energy. Fats take quite a bit longer to digest than the other macronutrients, and it also depends on which type of fat is being digested as well.
There are several different types of fat: unsaturated, saturated, and trans. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and found in foods from plants, vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. They are considered a healthy and beneficial fat; whereas, trans fatsare not. Trans fat is made by hydrogenation, which raises bad LDL and lowers good HDL cholesterol levels. Last, saturated fat is found in a mix of foods that already contain fat such as chicken, nuts, beef, and cheese. Coconut and palm oil are very popular plant sources of saturated fats as well. Some fat packed foods are vegetable oils, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, animal fats, seafood, dairy, and processed foods. Fats – 1 gram = 9 calories.
Keeping track of daily macros can be beneficial for weight loss, diabetes, heart disease, and athletes. We all have our own genetic makeup, so I highly recommend hiring a registered dietitian to form a detailed breakdown for your specific needs. However, there are many apps that make it super convenient to track your daily intake easily from your phone. I really love Macros+ and MyFitnessPal, which both have their own perks.
Counting calories can also be super beneficial, especially in a weight loss program, but it’s important to remember that consuming 2,000 calories of strictly carbohydrates does not have the same effect as eating 2,000 calories of combined protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. By tracking macros, you are also able to track how many calories are also being consumed each day as well! It is a much more fine-tuned way to track daily intakes and keep track of daily recommendations for a lack of better words.
Macros are typically tracked by grams using food scales or labels provided by the product being consumed. The app that I personally use, Macros+, will actually scan in the product’s barcode, so it is super easy to create meals ahead of time or if I am running behind and want to stay close to my daily targets.
Tracked Dinner Example:
2 oz chicken breast 94 cal. protein 17g, carb 0g, fat 2g
1/3 cup brown rice 72 cal. protein 2g, carb 15g, fat 1g
2 cups veggies 88 cal. protein 5g, carb 20g, fat 0g
8 almonds 55 cal. protein 2g, carb 2g, fat 5g
TOTAL: 296 cal. Protein 26g, Carb 37g, Fat 8g